Volume 20, Number 4
June 2003


By Craig Ball

It seems not a day goes by without a sensational news story on how the Internet compromises our personal privacy. A new movie cliché is the Hacker with a Heart of Gold, a computer geek who can tap a few keys and access any database of personal information, from shoe size to medical history to credit card usage. The good guy often is matching wits against his corrupt counterpart in the SGA (Shady Government Agency): a twisted cyberwhiz who can instantly tap any phone or re-task a surveillance satellite. This is cybersleuthing Hollywood style. It's mostly fantasy because much of the techno wizardry is not currently possible, at least not as depicted; but it's also spooky because cybersleuthing already is far more invasive, revealing, and downright easy than you might expect. Nowadays, erstwhile Sherlocks can slake their thirst for detective work by getting the goods on their Moriartys online.

For lawyers the web is a broad avenue for informal discovery, allowing litigators to test a witness's candor and probe a litigant's background and resources. Like salespeople, politicians, and escort services, lawyers are in the persuasion business. Trial lawyers must persuade juries that their clients' interests should prevail. Jury persuasion can be based on trust or education, but most often it requires a measure of both.
How do you gain someone's trust? How do you throw an opponent off balance? How do you show that opponents or their witnesses are not to be trusted? A nugget of information obtained by cybersleuthing can go a long way to accomplishing all of these tasks. Trial work entails taking sworn testimony by deposition, and not everyone honors a sworn oath. Witnesses' willingness to tell the truth is tied to their perception of the risk of being caught in a lie. If I know something about a witness I'm not supposed to know-something trivial, strange, or obscure that didn't emerge from the formal discovery process-the witness can't be sure what else I know and will be less likely to stray from the truth.

Consider the Source
Don't wait for jury selection to start the persuasion engine. Facts may be facts, but the hearing is in the telling. Because most of what we communicate in person is conveyed nonverbally, what witnesses feel about the questioner is as much a part of the message as their words. Cybersleuthing can turn up tidbits about a witness's background that can be parlayed into rapport. For example, if a witness grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, I might go online to find out what her folks did for a living, what schools she attended, where the local kids hung out, and so on. If the opportunity arises, I can ask, "Did you hang out at that Dairy King on Sycamore Street?" or "Weren't they big rivals with Central's football team?" and forge an instant connection with her. Obviously, this technique has to be used with discretion or you might seem more stalker than confidant.

Anyone can post anything on the web, so be skeptical of information derived from all but the most trustworthy online sources until it's verified. Uncorroborated Internet data should never play a decisive role in critical decisions like hiring, firing, or leveling accusations. The sheer volume of online records, data entry errors, and identity theft can lead to misidentification. Consider the source, cross check, and be careful.

For tracking down witnesses, defendants, agents for service, and the occasional wayward client, the Internet's speed and affordability can't be beat. But online resources primarily track middle-class and affluent Americans. Aside from convicted criminals, the Internet is not very good at finding people who actively conceal their identity; live outside the United States; or cannot afford credit or other mainstream connectors like a driver's license, real estate, or bank or utility accounts. In that event, the best approach is to identify those who know the subject and talk to them-people rarely sever all ties with family and friends.

As you assemble information, make note of vital statistics and other data concerning the subject's spouse, children, siblings, parents, close friends, employers, employees, roommates, business partners, parole officers, neighbors, assumed names, etc. These collateral subjects may be easier to track and help point you to the subject.

Basic Data
The four primary information items for skip tracing (i.e., tracking someone down) are full name, date of birth, social security number, and driver's license number. Having the subject's name and one of the other three items will almost always suffice to secure the other two. Because people are usually capable of estimating a subject's age (at least within a range), I find birth date most useful in differentiating among online records, and it's easier to come by than a social security or driver's license number. Birth dates can be found using a variety of online sites, including school and alumni associations, professional directories, genealogy references, driver's license and voter records, licensure agency databases, newspaper archives, criminal records, Usenet posts, website guest books, or, my favorite, a free database called www.anybirthday.com.

Anybirthday.com claims to have over 135 million birth dates online, indexed for free searches by name and zip code. Conducting a birthday search on the site is easy, but culling through the results can be challenging or downright maddening if your subject has a common name. The search interface supports both partial names and partial zip codes; if you're not sure whether the subject goes by Mary or Martha, you can search for all first names beginning "Mar." Similarly, if you know a subject's general vicinity, you can furnish just the first two or three numbers of a zip. For example, typing 77 in the zip search field focuses the search on the Houston metropolitan region, including nearby counties, and 770 restricts the focus to the central city. Although the database returns middle initials, the search engine does not permit the use of middle initials as search criteria. (The birth date search is free, but the address service costs $39-pricey when weighed against alternatives.)

Search Engines
The web is a library with no official card catalog and stacks of books piled to the ceiling in no particular order. By now most people at least somewhat conversant with computers know help is available in the form of free indexing services called search engines. Search engines permit you to search large chunks of online information by keywords or subject areas. The best search engine is Google, and the best known, Yahoo. Others are Lycos, Overture, AlltheWeb, AltaVista, IxQuick, and the inelegantly named Dogpile. A reliable search engine makes an excellent start page for your browser. No matter how extensive, no search engine is exhaustive, and you may want to run some searches on several. The search engines listed above are free.

No discussion of search engines would be complete without covering the incomparable google.com. Google is so good at what it does that cybersleuthers have turned it into a term for running a broad Internet search: "to googlize." With access to 3 billion web documents, its data include web pages, images, and newsgroup messages. But it, too, has limitations: The most effective online skip tracing tools (voter, driver's license, and criminal records, to name a few) aren't available here.

To run a search, type in the search terms (e.g., a name, a concept-upper or lower case) and click the search button (the order of the terms will affect the search results). Narrowing the search is as simple as adding words to the search terms and reclicking the button. (Common words such as "and" and "the" are unnecessary. If a common word is essential to the results, force its use by adding the "+" symbol before it.) Putting quotation marks around two or more words or names will narrow the search to only those words in sequence. The most common mistake with using search engines is launching a phrase without first reading the instructions particular to that engine. This is usually called the "help page" or "FAQs" (frequently asked questions).

Phone Directories
A decade ago, skip tracing might have entailed days poring over dozens of phone books and reverse directories at a big-city public library. Now the Internet makes it possible to check nearly every phone book in the nation in seconds, at no cost. Sites including Switchboard.com, WhoWhere.com, AnyWho.com, and several others link to millions of listed numbers and cross-link to maps, physical addresses, e-mail addresses, and a mix of other free and for-fee services. A powerful feature of some online white pages is the ability to reverse search by phone number or address to find the name of the holder.

Real Property Records
Counties from coast to coast have rapidly made real property and appraisal district records accessible via the Internet. In addition to identifying assets that may be subject to execution, these records may locate family members or lead to previous or forwarding addresses. Real property records also offer insight into financial, marital, and family relationships. Although no site has emerged as the definitive source for free online real property and appraisal records, two are good starting points: www.netronline.com and www.real-estate-public-records.com.

Genealogy databases are fertile sources of skip trace data. Birth, marital, divorce, and death records are waiting to be found on the major sites. The primary geneal-ogy sites are www.ancestry.com and www.rootsweb.com. The former is best for death records because it contains the entire Social Security Death Index. The latter offers an excellent metasearch that combs all manner of family records to produce a list of hits. A third site, www.Familysearch.com, is a searchable database of 400 million names maintained by the Mormons. Finally, try www.legacy.com to search more than 1,000 newspaper obituary records, which often include names and hometowns for the subject's siblings and/or children.

Criminal Records
The ultimate source of criminal records, the FBI database called the National Crime Information Center, is off limits to all but law enforcement personnel. It is the closest thing to a nationwide criminal records database as exists, but even this definitive resource doesn't contain complete records for all 50 states. Furthermore, strict penalties apply for unauthorized access to and trafficking in the data. As a result, gathering criminal convictions data on a nationwide basis can be tough. A limited number of criminal records are available online without charge at www.searchsystems.net. Many fee-based criminal records search services have sprung up, including a few operated by law enforcement agencies. Charges for criminal records searches vary widely; one of the best is www.choicepoint.com, an expensive resource geared to lawyers, collection agencies, and other investigative professionals.

Commercial Providers
Literally hundreds of data brokers sell their services online, ranging from law-abiding corporate behemoths like ChoicePoint and Experian to fly-by-night outfits on both sides of the law. The former usually have the best data, but the latter may be the only place to secure certain information, which can be a risky proposition for all concerned. What you pay for is not necessarily what you get. Some companies charge big bucks for data available online for free; reputable firms like Accurint, KnowX, or USSearch offer their services at very reasonable prices. Choose your suppliers wisely; recent changes to the law impose criminal penalties upon not only those who perform certain illegal searches but also those who purchase them. (See sidebar "Pay to Play" at left for detailed information about the range of commercial providers.)

Credit Reports
A credit report can be very revealing. Typically a credit report includes five primary categories of information: personal data, credit history, public records entries, inquiries, and credit score. These five categories contain subcategories of information as follows:

-Personal data
Current and previous addresses
Social Security number
Telephone number
Date of birth
Current and previous employers

-Credit history
Lists the status of all credit accounts for the preceding ten years:
Retail credit cards
Bank loans
Finance company loans
Bank credit cards, including
Account number
Creditor's name
Amount borrowed
Amount owed
Credit limit
Dates account opened, updated, or closed
Timeliness of payments

-Public records
A credit report's public records section includes:
Tax liens
Court judgments (including child support judgments)

A credit report's inquiries section contains a listing of all parties that have requested a copy of the subject's credit report. Some may be other than "official" business inquiries, such as screenings for promotional offers or account management status from past creditors.

-Credit score
Credit scores are one of the primary tools a creditor uses to determine whether or not to make a loan, how much to offer, and at what rate. A credit score frequently is a decisive piece of data because it is ostensibly an objective summary of the credit report. Thousands of score models used in the credit industry consider different variables for different types of credit. Credit bureaus offer several different scores in their various products.
Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion are the big three consumer reporting agencies and control virtually all the nation's consumer credit data. Because an unfavorable credit report can wreak havoc on an individual's life, these reports were the first electronic data closely regulated by federal legislation. Each will happily sell you a copy of your own credit report for less than ten dollars, but gaining access to their massive database of details about your identity and creditworthiness is a more challenging and costly undertaking. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) affords consumers certain rights designed to promote the accuracy and ensure the privacy of information in credit reports. In theory only a person with a legitimate business need as recognized by the FCRA or with express permission from the subject can get a copy of another person's credit report. In practice, the lack of meaningful oversight of the sale of credit data means almost anyone willing to pay for it can get a copy of your report. Sadly, the FCRA is observed mostly in the breach. The big three are not the primary culprits in this regard; the transgressions are largely made by rogue data brokers-who are more likely than not customers of the big three.

-Public Records
A broad sweep of public records is freely accessible via a variety of government and private databases. You truly never know what you might find. Resources may include the following records: courts, judgments and liens, marriage and divorce, birth and death, professional licensure and discipline, motor vehicle and driver's license, business incorporations, assumed name registries, UCC security filings, property tax appraisals, watercraft and airplane registrations, political contributions, voter registration, bankruptcy filings and proceedings, probate filings, personal property and ad valorem taxes, fishing and hunting licenses, building permits, pet registries, military service, sex offender registries, outstanding warrants, abandoned bank accounts, inmates and offenders, and many more.
The most comprehensive free list of such resources is at www.searchsystems.net. It is extraordinarily complete and well worth checking early in the cybersleuthing process. Another stellar site for access to all manner of U.S. government records is www.firstgov.gov, which accesses more than 50 million government documents. Two additional free public records resources deserve special mention: FECInfo contains records of political contributions made to candidates for federal office, at www.tray.com. Landings.com accesses a database of aircraft ownership and those holding pilots' licenses.


Identity fraud is the world's fastest growing crime. Although there are no reliable measures of the prevalence or cost of identity fraud, the U.S. General Accounting Office puts the year 2000 domestic loss to MasterCard and Visa alone at $1 billion (including account takeovers, fraudulent applications, and most other categories of payment card fraud). Because birth dates, social security numbers, driver's license data, and other public and online records have been used in identity fraud, some want to outlaw the release or sale of these identifiers. The problem with this approach is that the responsibility is not only misplaced, but worse, the proposed solution simply won't work.
If a door can be opened by slipping a library card against the latch, fault the shoddy lockset, not the library. Responsibility for the increased incidence of identity fraud, and for its prevention, must be laid at the feet of the banks, credit card issuers, brokerage houses, retailers, and others who have failed to adopt improved methods of authentication. Our financial security is anything but secure as long as financial institutions rely on flawed authenticators like "mother's maiden name" or "last four digits of your Social Security number."

Will limiting access to public records and outlawing sale of personal data solve the identity fraud problem? No-the cows are long gone from that barn, and outlawing online public data will only make it harder to collect debts, screen employees, and locate witnesses. According to credit information giant TransUnion, the leading source of identity fraud is stolen employer records, followed by credit card cloning and mail theft. Instead of buying information from data brokers, identity thieves rifle through our trash, "shoulder surf" behind us in the checkout line, and "skim" encoded data from our credit cards at the local café.
Automatic teller machines use a mix of hardware (ATM card) and software (PIN) for authentication. Other financial transactions should employ both to guard against fraud. To combat identity theft, regulators should require banks and other financial institutions, retailers, and all entities to which we entrust our savings and credit reputation to employ authentication procedures better suited to a wired and impersonal world. Inexpensive biometric devices, password protection, and digital keys, to name just a few alternatives, would be a small job for creditors and a quantum leap toward more secure transactions.


A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that two out of three Americans expect to find government information on the Net, and that one of three Internet users expects to be able to locate and gather reliable information about people online. Why, then, are so many who expect to find online public records and personal data about others dismayed to find the same information is available about them? A concerted effort by the government to make public records available online has run up against contradictory expectations and a backlash of misdirected legislation.

Public access to government records is a cornerstone of good governance. Anyone who wishes to do so is free to visit the courthouse and pore over the records. The inconvenience and expense of a trip to the hall of records operated, as a practical matter, to limit frequent access to members of the press, commercial users, and those with a compelling desire that justified the time and expense. But this "practical obscurity" of public records afforded the public a false sense of privacy.

As government embraces the efficiencies and openness of online access, practical obscurity has given way to instant access to all manner of personal, though not private, information. Open and less costly governance and improved services come at the expense of our neighbors' ability to see how much our home is worth, who holds the note on our car, and perhaps even the grounds pled by our ex in that messy divorce.

Security concerns following September 11 acted as a tailwind for privacy initiatives, sometimes at the expense of open government and personal freedom. Issues of privacy often are claimed as a surrogate for what people really want: crime control. Instead of trying in vain to suppress access to identifiers like Social Security or driver's license numbers, it would be wiser to blunt their usefulness in criminal activity. Knowing someone's Social Security number shouldn't make it easier to access their bank account or to secure a credit card in their name.

Though the United States has no omnibus legislation covering private use and collection of personal information, a patchwork of laws regulates different types of information. Statutes cover consumer credit, educational records, videotape rentals, cable TV viewing, electronic communications, motor vehicle records, driver's license records, and web surfing by minors. In addition to violating laws prohibiting eavesdropping devices, publicizing private matters, publicizing in a false light, or appropriating a person's name or likeness for commercial purposes, cybersleuthers can run afoul of additional state laws and federal statutes, new and old. Chief among them are the following:

-Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Limits access to credit information, including the locator data contained in "credit headers." The FCRA establishes a narrow range of legitimate purposes for such information.

-Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 (GLB). Regulates release and sharing of customer data by financial institutions and prohibits use of pretext methods (i.e., misdirection) to gain access to financial data.

-Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA). Although riddled with exceptions, the DPPA governs public access to state motor vehicle registration records and driver's license records. It limits how recipients of such records may share them and requires that state agencies inform the person whose information is requested about the request and secure the individual's permission before releasing the information.

Perhaps one lesson of September 11 is that where privacy is concerned, rights are not absolute. We see trade-offs between privacy and national security, privacy and market efficiency, privacy and convenience, and privacy and societal interaction. But, in balancing private interests and public data, we shouldn't let the bogeyman of criminal abuse scare away the real and significant benefits that flow from online access.


There are hundreds of data brokers hawking their wares online, from law-abiding corporate behemoths to fly-by-night outfits skirting privacy laws. Data brokerage is not a venue where you get what you pay for. Some companies charge big bucks for data available elsewhere for free. Choose your suppliers wisely, because recent changes to the law impose criminal penalties not only upon those who perform illegal searches, but also upon those who purchase them. Beware the provider promising bank or brokerage account records. Such information is available for sale, but it is almost certain to have been acquired in violation of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.
The following are thumbnail sketches of online vendors of personal data and locator information.

Accurint: www.accurint.com
What sets Accurint apart is the high quality of its data and its prices, which are just dirt cheap. Accurint can find your subject for a quarter-yes, just 25 cents-and will deliver a neat little dossier of addresses, relatives, neighbors, and more in seconds for less than five bucks. The interface is intuitive and intelligent, and the system allows users to track usage by account or client number and authorize use by others within an account. Although currently focusing on skip tracing, UCC filings, and phone numbers, Accurint is adding driver's license, court, and criminal records. On a scale from one to wow, Accurint is a WOW!

ChoicePoint: www.choicepointonline.com
No private web resource approaches ChoicePoint's data muscle of more than 10 billion public records. ChoicePoint sells to sectors-including the legal profession-willing to pay its prices and jump through the hoops of its registration process. It entails a monthly subscription fee in addition to hefty search charges, but it's probably the best resource for background personal data and online public records. (Some users report the subscription fee is negotiable; be sure to ask.)

KnowX: www.knowx.com
KnowX might fairly be called "the poor man's ChoicePoint" (it's owned by them). It sells to anyone and heavily markets its wares through Internet banner ads and strategic partnerships with search engines and portal sites. It has no subscription fee, and search prices range from free to $29.95. Its free "Ultimate People Finder" is hard to beat.

Locate Fast: www.loc8fast.com
Locate Fast is a mix of search-it-yourself resources and assisted search options. Prices are modest, ranging from $5 for a simple people finder to $20 for a Wants and Warrants search. One jarring note is its charge for database services (like the death or licensed pilot indices) that are available without charge everywhere else.

Public Data: www.publicdata.com
This inexpensive database contains records of licensed drivers, sex offenders, voters, vehicle license tags, criminal records (31 states), and voter rolls. It offers motor vehicle and/or driver's license data for Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. A month's subscription of $9.95 entitles you to 200 searches; a year of access and 250 searches costs just $25.

USSearch: www.ussearch.com
If you're uncomfortable doing searches or if your time is better spent elsewhere, USSearch may be the resource for you. For an additional fee, USSearch will do the work and e-mail the results. Standard turnaround time is under 24 hours, but they usually beat that. The "Expert Assisted People Locate" costs about $60 and includes address history, possible aliases, names of relatives and neighbors, bankruptcies, tax liens, real property ownership, and more.

FlatRateInfo: www.flatrateinfo.com
With annual subscription rates starting at $1,400, this service makes sense only for those who conduct thousands of searches per year. FlatRateInfo.com offers unlimited access to credit headers, property ownership, phone numbers, and the like for a flat fee.

TrialSmith: www.trialsmith.com
Founded as DepoConnect.com and exclusively for use by plaintiffs' trial lawyers, TrialSmith puts the full text of more than 100,000 depositions-nearly 10 million pages of testimony-at your fingertips. Member trial lawyers can search at no charge and purchase information only as needed. Additional services and lower deposition costs are available by subscription.

Craig Ball practices law in Montgomery, Texas. His website, www.craigball.com, offers quick access to the major search engines and major telephone databases, and an eclectic compendium of discovery links and investigative resources.

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